Thursday, August 06, 2009

Benefit of the Doubt (by res ipsa loquitur)

On July 26th, there was a terrible car crash in a suburb just north of New York. You may have read about it due to the sheer volume of carnage it created. A thirty-six year old woman drove the wrong way for two miles on a parkway that snakes through Westchester County before crashing her minivan head-on into an SUV. The only survivor was the woman's five-year-old son. She, her daughter and three nieces died in the minivan, as did an eighty-one year-old man, his son, and their family friend in the SUV.

It was the worst traffic accident in Westchester in seventy-five years, but it's the tangle of family relationships that's made the story top news here for over a week now: a father and son, three sisters, a mother and a daughter, a friend along for the ride -- all dead.

The question was: why?

That's what everyone was asking about the driver, Diane Schuler. Why did she go the wrong way? Why didn't she realize that she was going the wrong way? Why did she ignore the oncoming drivers who flashed their headlights in an effort to alert her to her peril? Why did she drive -- with kids in the car -- after calling her brother to say she was disoriented? Why did she drive when her brother told her he'd come and pick her up? Why didn't she stay put? Why?

Initial reports said there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol playing a role in this crash, so I assumed -- like many others -- that she'd suffered some sort of stroke, aneurysm, diabetic shock, or the sudden effects of an undiagnosed brain tumor. That's why it was such a shock to learn yesterday not only that had Diane Shuler been drinking and smoking pot, but that she was drunk and high: very drunk and high.

But even after reading news coverage of the toxicology report, I wandered around yesterday and today still not believing it.

So the question remains: why?

That I am still asking this question indicates, I think, some sort of bias or sexism on my part and I'm writing about it because I know you will call me on it and unpack it. I've known my share of people with alcohol and drug problems. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, classes, and shades. I keep wondering if I'd accept the story if the driver was a man, a black woman, a Latino, younger, not middle class, or if she didn't look like this. Why am I still -- in the face of all this evidence -- trying to give Diane Shuler the benefit of the doubt? Compassion for what may be an addiction? A desire not to pile on? Hope that more information will come forth that will explain her behavior and let her fit more easily into whatever stereotype about white middle class moms rattling around in my head? People have called her "stupid" and "selfish" and "evil" and "callous". All too easy. I can accept a middle class white woman with an addiction, but the part I can't get past is loading those kids up in the car.

Your thoughts, please.